I’m the grandchild of migrants. My paternal grandparents came to Washington from Virginia and South Carolina. My maternal grandparents started off in Alabama. And so I always had the sense that being a black Washingtonian meant having one foot in the South. There was iced tea on the table every night; there was pot liquor and corn bread. I asked my grandmother about her life, and a lot of her memories were food memories. She left me this very rich narrative about picking berries and being in the garden. No one had to tell me about “organic” or “sustainable,” because that was the tradition that was passed down to me. My authenticity is not based on food trends; my authenticity is based on what August Wilson once called the self-sustaining ground of the slave quarter.
My role as the persona of @antebellumchef [on Twitter] is to interrogate the current brand of Southern food because it often relegates our ancestors to a tertiary position in the genealogy of Southern cuisine. Up until cooking became a formalized professional, degreed thing, there were a preponderance of black cooks. Beneath the Mason-Dixon line, those plantations were like restaurants. Well, who was doing the cooking? Almost completely, 99 percent black cooks, cooks of African descent. So I do what I do to honor those people who were not formally educated but had formal experience — who created Southern cuisine. I do this to honor them, because so many of them are nameless, faceless and uncredited for the genius that they had in making the American table work.
A lot of my most important dialogues are with black and white Southerners of a certain generation. We have these amazing discussions, and people just start emoting. They’ll talk about how they joked around with their fathers and uncles when there was a barbecue or making biscuits with their mother. They talk about going into the woods with grandparents to pick out medicinal herbs, things like that. It’s really beautiful, because all of a sudden they are being taken back; people have these functional family memories that just make them well up with tears. I always keep a pen and a paper handy. I was in a senior home in Northern Virginia, and I have 15 pages of notes given to me by that audience. Those are the great moments. I want to capture everything that they say.
My whole path as a culinary historian and as a writer has been a resistance and a rebellion against every voice that I’ve ever come across. I was not supposed to get a degree in being black, right? And I wasn’t supposed to get a degree in being a big boy, either, meaning Food Studies. My form of rebellion is cooking my own identity. Identity cooking is when you cook what you are. That’s how you can best understand me. You’ve gotta taste my cookin’. Once you taste my food, I make perfect sense.